The events that make the story tend to become more obvious once the context develops. This is certainly true in music. While some movements are obviously earth-shattering right now – to name a few, Beatlemania, punk and the rise of Nirvana – their true impact is taking some time to be felt. For example, it was easy to see that Nirvana would become the kind of rock band that defined a generation – but could have predicted the 2022 resurgence of the band’s moody album “Something In the Way” thanks to the movie “The Batman”?
In the summer of 1972, these glam innovators set rock ‘n’ roll on a cosmic trajectory from which it still orbits.
Memorable days also become known largely in hindsight. Take June 16, 1972, which is widely considered the release date for two of the most important albums of all time: Roxy Music’s self-titled debut album and “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” by David Bowie. The coincidence is mind-boggling – and, depending on your source, this date could very well be too good to be true – although what’s not in question is this: in the summer of 1972, these glam innovators put the rock ‘ n’ roll on a cosmic stage trajectory from which it is always in orbit.
Roxy Music had only been a band for just over a year when they recorded their debut with King Crimson lyricist and co-founder Peter Sinfield. “Re-Make/Re-Model” set the tone for both the album and Roxy Music’s career. The song opens with a crowd noise that sounds like a hopping happy hour before Bryan Ferry’s jubilant piano announces musical celebrations: Andy Mackay’s twirling tenor saxophone, Phil Manzanera’s scorching electric guitar, the scribbles of Brian Eno’s synthesizer. The song hints that they missed their chance with a mysterious “she” who could be interpreted as a woman – but could also represent how Roxy embraced the future: “Looking back, all I did was look away / Next time is the best time everyone knows”
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That doesn’t mean “Roxy Music” is reinventing the wheel musically; in contrast, the band took existing musical styles and filtered them through a fresh, experimental lens. That’s certainly largely down to Eno, a synth-mad scientist who enjoyed processing and manipulating familiar sounds and coaxing otherworldly sounds from cutting-edge synths. But other songs had obvious antecedents: “If There Is Something” has a slightly booming intro; “Would you believe?” both polishes 50s rock and finds Ferry vamping like his beloved Motown and soul idols; and Humphrey Bogart’s “2 HB” tribute puts a solemn glow on the zone-out psychedelic vibe.
Phil Manzanera, Bryan Ferry, Andy Mackay (seated) Brian Eno, Rik Kenton and Paul Thompson (seated) of Roxy Music posed for a group photo at the Royal College Of Art video studio in London on July 5, 1972 (Brian Cooke/Redferns/Getty Images)
[Roxy Music] took existing musical styles and filtered them through a fresh, experimental lens.
Lyrically, too, Ferry explores a timeless trope – love – though his takes provided a more complex take on pursuit and attraction. “Ladytron” features a sleazy man who loves (and leaves) a woman, while other songs come together to paint a picture of a hopeless romantic who has regrets and longs for better days in a relationship, though. that is not always possible. But driven by the idea that there are no such thing as fairy tale endings, the characters in “Roxy Music” exude a more vulnerable masculinity: “But even the angels out there make the same mistakes in love/In love, in love.”
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If “Roxy Music” felt like a beginning, “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” was intended as an ending. It’s understandable: This was actually Bowie’s fifth album, and he’d already cycled through his folk, psych-rock, and proto-glam looks before landing on his Ziggy persona. As with “Roxy Music”, there were obvious nods to the past (bluesy rock ‘n’ roll, “It Ain’t Easy” reminiscent of the Beatles, solemn soft rock) although these influences felt more modern. Bowie and his band have cannibalized themselves – in hindsight, it seems like a natural sonic progression since 1971’s “Hunky Dory” – and recent trends, like the Stooges’ proto-punk, for inspiration. Mick Ronson’s swaggering electric guitar, introspective piano and string arrangements possess a clarity of execution and intent that matches the swinging rhythm section of bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Woody Woodmansey.
The theme arc of “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” that of a flamboyant rock star navigating the minefields of fame and his own bad behaviors, explored a darker side of the romance: an alliance with intoxicating self-sabotage and the seduction of the spotlight. Bowie inhabited this persona with his whole being, relying on his malleable vocal approach to convey a range of emotions: the fierce melodramatic singer of “Ziggy Stardust”, the wise crooner of “Starman”, the stinging rock god of “Suffragette City” and the desperate, fiery idol in the midst of freefall in “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide.”
The theme arc of “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”… explored a darker side of romance: banter with intoxicating self-sabotage and the seduction of the spotlight.
In the UK, “Roxy Music” peaked at No. 10 on the charts. “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” meanwhile, also performed well, crushing the UK charts at No. 15 for the period June 25 to July 1, the highest debut this week. , and eventually reaching No. 5.
Both bands also had high-profile appearances on Top of the Pops that summer, with Bowie’s July performance of “Starman” followed by Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” in August. Of course, these performances revealed that it wasn’t just the music, but their looks that made these acts such thrills. Ferry’s Mars Elvis look was almost understated compared to the rest of the band’s sparkly and shiny outfits. Bowie’s colorful look and renegade approach — including his physical familiarity with Mick Ronson on TOTP — shook up masculinity in a way that Roxy Music didn’t. As Ziggy, he was playful and conspiratorial, shy and confident. Her androgynous look showed people possibilities and options – that 1, and there were many ways to be a rock star and a human in the world.
As was the case with many English bands, the reception in America was different. Roxy Music’s debut album failed to hit the US charts in 1972; to date, it still has not graced the main Billboard albums chart. (It peaked at No. 19 on the 2020 vinyl album chart.) Support for the band came from more adventurous outlets, like Cleveland radio station WMMS, which acknowledged how well Roxy fit in with the rest. of the future-oriented musical pantheon. Later Roxy Music albums would at least chart, although the band’s reputation certainly still had room to grow in America.
Guitarist Mick Ronson, bassist Trevor Bolder, David Bowie and drummer Mick Woodmansey of ‘Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ pose for a portrait in November 1972 in London, England. (Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)
As was the case with many English bands, the reception in America was different… It’s clear that Ziggy’s myth-making was already underway in 1972.
David Bowie is another story. “The Rise & Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,” meanwhile, debuted at No. 196 on the Billboard album chart the week of June 17, 1972, after bubbling under the main chart at No. 207 the previous week. (These chart placements likely debunk claims of a mid-June US release date, although Bowie’s official site did find correspondence from the record company to nail a UK release on June 16.) It eventually peaked at No. 21 — although that peak came weeks after Bowie’s death in 2016.
However, it’s clear Ziggy’s myth-making was already underway in 1972. In a June 3 review of “Starman,” Cash Box praised the song, writing that it “literally proves that the best rock is not of this world, but is rather ‘misty cosmic jive.’ Should eclipse ‘Changes’ in its upward stellar orbit, establishing a new superstar in our galaxy.” Record World also raved about the single, which was backed by “Suffragette City”: “Another two-sided space oddity from Britain’s first big superstar of the 70s; a delightful teenage track backed by a risque rocker. Forget it, Bowie has this.”
The June 10, 1972 issue of Billboard also featured a rave review of the “Ziggy Stardust” LP: “Nineteen and Seventy-Two may well fall as the year Davy Bowie put the glitz and glamor back into rock. It’s almost [an, sic] indestructibly sensitive lyricist in the popdom. Already a cutting-edge superstar, this album will make him accessible to the masses for home consumption.” This mainstream saturation has yet to happen, at least not yet – but Ziggy’s reputation (and, by extension , of Bowie) was already beginning to crystallize.
Yet today, these two albums still resonate in modern music. That’s partly because so many British punk and post-punk artists inspired by Bowie and Roxy are still active – to name a few, Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Soft Cell’s Marc Almond and Toyah. However, these LPs showed that you could lean on musical plans and come up with an entirely new approach. “Ziggy Stardust” proved that concept albums could work if the songwriting was strong enough. And both have demonstrated that being fiercely original pays off – once the rest of the world catches up to your greatness and creativity.
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[CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misidentified 1971 album “Hunky Dory.” This has been fixed and updated.]